“There’s heartbreak in someone losing themselves”: Relic director Natalie Erika James on her love of gothic and Asian horror

Natalie Erika James on the inspiration and influences for her debut feature Relic, a haunting horror about a dementia-suffering grandmother.

28 October 2020

By James Bell

Sight and Sound

▶ Relic is on BFI Player and other digital platforms.

The inspiration for Relic came from a trip to Japan a few years ago to visit your grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s. Did the idea strike you at the time?

I write in a journal every day – even if I’m not working on a script. Through writing every day, images start to arise. Here the first image came from my grandmother’s house. A lot of the upstairs rooms at her house were full of old junk – they were in essence hoarding rooms. I had this image of a hoarding room that just kept going on and on. I started from there.

Natalie Erika James

With the personal connection, did you find yourself initially writing from the granddaughter Sam’s perspective? And how did that shift as you went on – as much of the film is from the perspective of Emily Mortimer’s character Kay [Sam’s mother and the daughter of elderly Edna who is living with dementia]?

Yeah, that’s accurate. Over time it shifted to Kay, because she goes through a full arc of resisting and then landing on acceptance. Not all Alzheimer’s is hereditary, but in this film it’s implied that this is something that’s going to pass on to the next generation, so commenting on the cyclical nature of things, it felt more like Kay was the better focus – she’s being pulled between the two other characters.

But there are also scenes that are told from Edna’s perspective, and that was important to us. She’s inscrutable, but we wanted the audience to have compassion for her – there’s heartbreak in someone losing themselves and them being aware of that; that was certainly something I saw in my grandmother.

The confused mental state is a staple of the gothic tradition, but were there particular tropes within it that you wanted to subvert?

Yeah. Particularly in horror, there’s the crazy old lady trope, and mental health is often depicted in a simplistic way – ‘Othering’ people who are suffering, as opposed to bringing in their experience and exploring it from what that must feel like. In gothic horror a lot of it is about that restraint and the suspension of whether something is real or whether it’s supernatural. So in terms of the scares that we put in the film, they do have real-world explanations as well.

Emily Mortimer as Kay

What films did you look to for inspiration?

A tonal reference I pointed to in pitching the film was [J.A. Bayona’s 2007] The Orphanage.

Asian horror is a massive influence on my work. I’m a huge Kurosawa Kiyoshi fan [the director of Cure, 1997; and Pulse, 2001], as well as of the original Ring [1997] and The Grudge [2002]. I always appreciated how, in Asian horror, it wasn’t so much about the menace invading the home from outside, it was a lot of times about things that were already in the home.

There’s also a dichotomy between horror and beauty in Asian horror – that yin and yang resonated with me. And the way the ghost or menace is something to feel empathy for. A lot of it stems from folklore, where it’s often a woman who’s been wronged or abused in some way.

The film tends to resist ‘jump-scare’ shocks in favour of a more creeping sense of dread.

It’s personal preference. Again it probably goes back to my love of the gothic, or Asian horror, where a lot of the tension is built within the frame. The horror has to be more thematically linked and it does have to be more psychological, because it’s not like you’re relying on the surprise factor of things jumping out – a quick cut, a loud noise. I prefer to work in that way. Horror’s subjective, but for me, with every fake-out jump-scare, you lose the audience’s trust a little, so I try to avoid it.

Bella Heathcote as Sam

Creating that sense of slow-burning dread within the frame means that mise en scène and production design are all the more important. How did you and the production designer conceive the space of the house?

We came up with this idea of unseen spaces. Every room you see in the film has a space that’s hinted at, or that you can’t see through. There’s a lot of semi-translucent glass – spaces that fall off into darkness – giving the sense that that there’s something inscrutable about the space – just as with Edna’s dementia. With the cinematography, we did frames within frames that would cut people off, or have the action take place off camera and people moving in and out of frames.

A lot of inspiration was taken from vanitas art [a genre of still life painting filled with symbolic references to mortality that flourished in the early 17th century], with its sense of a personification of death.

The way the film is tightly focused on a small cast playing female relatives, confined to a house, with the spectre of death ever-present, made me think of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers [1972]. Was that a film you looked to?

No, now you mention it, though I can see the link. Of other non-horror influences, Michael Haneke’s Amour [2012] was a film we talked about and looked to for its thematic similarities – even though we take things to a very different supernatural extreme!

Your website describes the film you’re currently writing, Drum Wave, as a Japanese folk horror. Can you say any more?

Yes. It’s in the vein of The Wicker Man [1973]. It takes a traditional British folk horror framework but sets it in Japan using Japanese mythology.

If Relic is about mortality and death, this one is more about birth and motherhood and creation. Just tackling the small themes in life [laughs]!

Further reading